Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Constelación, Metaphorosis, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Constelación 1/21
Metaphorosis 1/21, 2/21
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/1/21, 1/14/21

Welcome to 2021! Sure, it might be March or later as you’re reading this, but really my reading “year” runs from the March issue to the February “Year in Review” issue of the following year. I think we’re all look­ing for a better year to come, and the fiction I’ve been reading so far gives me hope.

A genuine newcomer for 2021 is Constel­ación, a bilingual fiction ‘zine in Spanish and English edited by Coral Alejandra Moore & Eliana González Ugarte. The opening story for issue #1 is a real barnstormer set in 1886. “My Mother’s Hand” by Dante Luiz features a trans man who is slowly being possessed by the ghost of his abusive mother, a witch who was massively disappointed that he gave up his witch powers along with his femininity to live the life he wants – that of a libertine sailor. She is also angry about being incorrectly buried in a Christian graveyard, and that is something he can fix. The main character springs to life on the page, taking a largely epistolic historical tale and imbuing it with animation and humor. It’s followed by “The Excruciating Beauty of Ephemera” by Keyan Bowes, a strangely sweet story centered on a sentient volcano that is as horrified by the damage it wreaks on a colony of frogs as on a group of volcanologists. “Imilla” by Vania T. Curtidor (translated by Mónica Louzon) brings us Lidia, working as a domestic in La Paz, Bolivia. On the way back to work after her mother’s funeral, she finds a stupid chain letter on a bus. She writes a frustrated note on the back and burns the thing, only to find that this puts her in touch with the achachila of Huayua Potosí, a mountain spirit. Through correspondence, it gives her the confi­dence she needs to look beyond her immediate horizons. Another worker named Lidia features in “Unforgettable” by Eduardo Martínez Báez (translated by Toshiya Kamei), but this time she has been engaged by a woman’s late husband Samuel and has (voluntarily) had some of his memories implanted, with the goal of helping the widow through her grieving process. After weathering the widow’s barely restrained rage at this posthumous presumption by her husband, the women slowly learn to live together – until it turns out Lidia has picked up a bit more from Samuel than favorite recipes. I’ll also admit to a fondness for “The Badger’s Digestion; or The First First-Hand Description of Denes­kan Beastcraft by an Aouwan Researcher” by Malka Older. I’m a sucker for stories of academic researchers in fantastic lands, and this one has traveled to a land where people can join together to make fantastic beasts of greater or lesser complexity. She’s having trouble making progress until she gets the chance to join a small town’s Badger, whose digestive system is about to go out on maternity leave. Seeing the process both from the outside and then from the inside makes for a delightful contrast, and the thrill of the experience, even when serving in a less-than-glamorous position, comes through clear as a bell. All the stories in Constelación are available to read in both English and Spanish, regardless of original language, and this is a new venue meet­ing SFWA pro pay rates. Making sure all stories have quality translations is an added challenge for any magazine, so here’s hoping that enough people chip in through Patreon and subscriptions to give this new entrant a long and successful run!

I’m sorry that I have not gotten to issues of Metaphorosis until this year, even though it’s been publishing regularly since 2016. The January and February issues for 2021 are full of strong fiction from names that aren’t yet well known. A good example from January is “Superbloom” by debut author Lynne Peskoe-Yang, an oddly sweet story considering that it involves the entire ocean being subsumed under a run-away algal bloom-type event, although here the culprit is lichen. The heart of the story is the long-distance relationship between a high-tech lighthouse keeper (named D in the story) and a Kiwi researcher (K) who had been monitoring the green growth before it went exponential. Communication across gulfs is the theme, with D and K separated in many ways, and then D trying to figure out if communication with the lichen is possible. I had some technical issues with the ending, but the bulk of the story works really well. That’s followed by “All We Ever Look For” by Cécile Cristofuri, with a woman who has a magic window that looks out on amazing fantastic worlds – but never the same world twice. There are many lonely or adventur­ous souls who are happy to pick a world and go, but the woman is left reading a rash of missing persons reports in the newspaper, wondering if what she’s facilitating is ethical. It’s a very nice dramatization of a particular moral dilemma. My favorite of the issue is “Esma’s Margaret” by Damien Krsteski, in which Esma is a bril­liant young engineer and hacker who is keeping electrical power flowing to her Serbian slum neighborhood by sheer tinkering genius. Very much against her family’s wishes she enters a hack-a-thon competition in which the prize is an internship with a major Eurotech company. In the background she’s been earning money by (she thinks) beta-testing a particular online counseling app; eventually she realizes that the “Margaret” therapy app is engaging in some very deceptive practices, and that gives her another avenue to pursue on her way out of poverty. There’s a lot of layers here in terms of talent, exploitation, and social pressure, all very well done.

My favorite story in the February issue is “Endless” by Ted S. Bushman, in which the all-powerful Transarch sends an emissary to the renowned smith Brevin the Binder to commission an ultimate “Sword of Endless Worlds.” Brevin reluctantly takes the commission but with plans of his own for it; fashioning it takes him on a quest across multiverses with an unusually plucky and insightful apprentice. There’s more than a little Gene Wolfe here, and it all comes together beautifully. We get another debut author with “Rock-Adda’s World” by Chloe Smith. This is a mother/daughter story where the mother is a researcher on a world inhabited by very large tunneling rock creatures. Colonists on the world are trying to rush into new lands, obviously harm­ing the cetalith beings in the process, and Adda is making herself no friends by trying to stand in the way of “progress” and protect the aliens. Her daughter is justifiably scared for her safety, but together they make a breakthrough discovery (with some great science behind it) that might allow them to make a legal claim for protection for the rock beings. “Reach for Your Ocean Heart” by C.M. Fields blends fantasy and SF tropes very nicely with a tale in two parts; in one a young woman hears the Voice, which means she will be an Oracle for her people. Eventually she realizes that, while it’s not telling her anything sensible, it might be part of something much bigger. In the other branch a woman is grieving because her android partner is being conscripted into an interstellar war and they’ll never be to­gether again, but there may be a way that they can keep communicating on some level into the future. Both storylines are deeply felt and come together for a great finale.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #320 has two stories of manipulation that are (mostly?) more positive than you’d expect. In “As Tight As Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick, Ondrakja finds a young girl, orphaned, begging on the street. She sees a lot of potential in the girl, especially to join the band of specially trained thieves that she’s recruited, a much better fate than being kidnapped and sold to a brothel. She slowly befriends the girl and gradually inducts her into her gang, opening up a brighter future – although the story has a nice sting in its tail. “Colombina” by Jelena Dunato is told from the perspective of a sentient mask that attracts a young woman to pick it up. Follow­ing the beats of commedia dell’arte it identifies the core drama of the woman’s life and the key players within, and helps her avoid the clutches of a lecherous Pantalone and run away with her Harlequin. It’s very cleverly done, and the mask has a great voice.

In Beneath Ceaseless Skies #321 “Bast and Her Young” by Tegan Moore imagines the time when the historical Hatshepsut decides to become Pharaoh of Egypt, despite her gender, because none of her male relatives are fit for the task. She expects to be visited by the Spirit of the King, her father, but instead sees only a particular ba-bird that starts following her around. As she struggles to gather the reins of the government, she starts to learn from the ba-bird and its companion that she may not be the first female Pharaoh, and that while histories might sometimes be erased they are not always forgotten. “Daughters with Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey also centers on female relationships, although in a very dif­ferent way. Here a woman was literally eaten by a wild dog, but they become a merged being. Their consciousnesses interact and, because she was pregnant when she was consumed, they eventually have a litter of puppies. Over time they learn more about their powers – and about the human part of their history, why the woman was so vulnerable at that moment. More powerful together, they start to take back her story.

Recommended Stories

“Endless”, Ted S. Bushman (Metaphorosis 2/21)
“As Tight As Any Knot”, M.A. Carrick (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/12/21)
“Esma’s Margaret”, Damien Krsteski (Metaphorosis 1/21)
“My Mother’s Hand”, Dante Luiz (Constelación 1/21)

Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non-Fiction category of the British SF Awards.

This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.

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